“We would like to dedicate this blog in memory of the four Lake Apopka farmworkers, community leaders, and long-time Farmworker Association of Florida members – strong and dedicated women leaders and agricultural workers – who we lost in 2013. In memory of Angela Tanner, Willie Mae Williams, Betty Woods, and Louise Seay. With gratitude and remembrance from the community. We will miss you.”
By Jeannie Economos
When I first started working for the Farmworker Association of Florida in 1996, they told me part of my job was to work on the issue of Lake Apopka. Little did I know at the time that Lake Apopka would become my life’s work for the next 17 years. And, it would become personal…as I came to know and love the community of people I worked with – the farmworkers who fed America for generations.
Lake Apopka is Florida’s most contaminated large lake. On the north shore, 20,000 acres of farmland were carved out of what was once the bottom of Lake Apopka. Farmworkers farmed that land – they call it muck –for decades beginning in the 1940s during World War II until the farms were bought out by the state and shut down in 1998 for the purpose of trying to restore the lake’s natural wetlands.
Alligator studies in the 1980s and the tragic death of over 1,000 aquatic birds on Lake Apopka in 1998-99 were linked to toxic organochlorine pesticides that had been used on the farms prior to their being banned in the 1970s. Farmworkers were exposed to these same chemicals, but nobody was looking at their health problems from chronic occupational pesticide exposure on the farmlands. Millions were spent to study alligators, and later the birds, and to try to restore the ‘dead’ lake. But no money was ever spent to address the health concerns of the farmworkers, who were acutely exposed to these pesticides for years.
The community would not accept this, especially when they saw their friends and family members getting sick and even dying. Thus, was born the idea of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project. With a lot of hard work and commitment from former Lake Apopka farmworkers from Apopka and Indiantown, it has become a reality. The quilts were created to honor the lives of the farmworkers who have been exposed to the pesticides and to keep alive their history. The artwork of each individual square weaves the personal stories, tragedies, and small victories together to speak about the environmental injustices at Lake Apopka. The Lake Apopka farmworker leaders continue to use the quilts to both raise awareness among student and church groups about environmental justice and their community, and as a tool to press their case with state and local decision makers to address the health and environmental problems facing their community members.
Today, the quilts have been viewed by thousands of Floridians and exhibited all across the state, including in Orlando City Hall, the Orange County Public Library, the Alachua County Public Library and the African American Museum of Art. This has helped spread awareness of the injustices the farmworkers face, and has helped build attention from the state legislature, which has been working to propose legislation which would provide long-term health care services for the affected residents surrounding the lake.
Is there still a need to address health care for the farmworkers on Lake Apopka? Yes, but the creation of the quilts has given the community a voice and a message that they didn’t have before. And, it has been a way for members to turn their pain into folk art that memorializes the ones they love. Validation is what the community wants. The quilts are one way to validate their lives and their contributions to our society.
About the author: Jeannie has worked for over 20 years on issues of the environment, environmental justice, indigenous and immigrants’ rights, labor, peace, and social justice. From 1996-2001, she worked for the Farmworker Association of Florida as the Lake Apopka Project Coordinator, addressing the issues of job loss, displacement, and health problems of the farmworkers who worked on the farm lands on Lake Apopka prior to the closing of the farms in 1998. After the bird mortality in 1998-99, her focus turned to the pesticide-related health problems of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers, who were exposed to the same damaging organochlorine pesticides that were implicated in the bird deaths.